Industry matters: Combat Labour influence in the union movement and follow the Greek example

Proletarian writers

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Proletarian writers

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The overproduction crisis continues to unfold, taking an ever greater toll in jobs. Criticised for its plans to cut a total of 1,500 jobs from its plants in Scunthorpe and Teeside, Indian steel giant Tata shrugged, pointing out that demand in the UK for structural steel has been slashed by one third since 2007.

Unite’s national officer Paul Reuter states the obvious when he tells workers “This is a real blow for the region,” but is clearly whistling in the dark when he offers the comfort that “We have already demanded that there should be no compulsory redundancies and we believe that this should be possible to achieve.”

The crisis will continue to rip through capacity rendered ‘surplus’ by the downward pressure on demand, a process of destruction that under bourgeois rule can only exhaust itself after catastrophic destruction of productive capacity globally has made the world fit once more for unhindered capital accumulation. The other ‘alternative’ is the overthrow of capitalism, progress towards which will not be made by limiting industrial struggle to the attempt to secure the least-worst redundancy packages for those tossed on the scrap heap.

The global character of the crisis is underlined by a Human Rights Watch report last September, which revealed how Europe-based giants like Ikea, Sodexo, BMW, Siemens, Daimler and VW are setting up plants in the Deep South of the USA, attracted by cheap wage rates and lax worker protection. Where once modern capitalism shook the economically backward southern slaveholding dust off its feet, preferring to industrialise the north on the back of ‘liberated’ wage slavery, monopoly capitalism in its dotage now degenerates back to its plantation ways, introducing at home the superexploitation once reserved for the colonies.

Combat Labour influence in the union movement

As union leaders feel impelled to match all the talk of coordinated resistance with some practical leadership, Unite has signed up to what is touted as a historic alliance with PCS. What mileage this will have for coordinated resistance remains to be seen, but the fact that the alliance rests upon the illusory promise of a neo-Keynesian ‘alternative’ economic strategy to rescue the economy (tax the rich and prime the pumps of fiscal stimulus) is not reassuring.

All the same, the readiness of McCluskey and co to sign on the dotted line gives us a clue about the healthy pressure coming from their own members to offer some practical leadership. Jerry Hicks’s recent challenge for the Unite general secretary job achieved a respectable second place despite all the efforts to bury his criticisms of the union’s servile relationship with Labour.

Time will tell how far Hicks’s instigation of a ‘Grass Roots Left’ group within Unite will serve to rally militants, but the group is dead right to fix its sights on what it terms “the ‘surrender’ slogan of the TUC, many trade-union leaders and the Labour party leadership of ‘Cuts, yes, but not so fast and not so deep’”.

The sapping influence of social democracy upon the unions needs to be fought. A current illustration of this can be seen over at the BBC. Efforts by staff there to resist cuts are weakened by the failure of the NUJ to lead an effective campaign against ALL redundancies. Instead, members are asked to take strike action, not against all redundancies, but against only compulsory redundancies.

By asking staff to go down to the wire behind this half-hearted battle cry, the union effectively guarantees disillusionment and division from the outset. Voluntary redundancies put the squeeze on remaining staff and prepare the way both for cheaper redundancy deals and outright sackings – as is now being experienced. Meanwhile, union reps find themselves in the invidious position of bending over backwards to help the company ferret out potential volunteers, all the while complaining that the company should be more ‘proactive’ in the search itself!

Just how treacherous Labour influence is became apparent when dazed members of the GMB tumbled to the fact that their own leaders had collaborated with the production of a briefing document extolling the merits of privatisation and workfare. The document stresses “the importance of outsourcing welfare-to-work provision to independent providers”, suggests that the “best practice is for contractors to have a presence in job centres” and nudges the government to “robustly monitor the subcontracting market to ensure that competition is maximised”.

NSSN conference

The fifth annual conference of the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) on 11 June was well-organised, boasted an array of leading union militants on the top table and doubtless played a useful role in focusing minds on the need to build resistance against the cuts, where necessary in the teeth of obstruction from the TUC.

Delegates welcomed the positive results from the strike ballots for 30 June coming from the NUT, the PCS and the (traditionally no-strike) ATL, and noted that even right-winger Dave Prentis had been pushed into dangling the prospect of a similar strike ballot for his own Unison members – at some point!

Opportunism in the trade-union movement also came under fire from those involved in resisting the recent lock-out of 400 construction workers in Saltend. Activists maintained that the battle was eventually lost “despite a willingness of the workforce to fight … leaving many questions being asked of some trade-union officials”.

Hopefully one of those questions was why union leaders continued to subordinate the industrial struggle to the interests of the Labour party. It is noteworthy that none of the unions who took strike action on 30 June is affiliated to the Labour party.

On the minus side, it seemed to our comrades who attended the conference that some of the apparent eagerness to tackle social-democratic treachery head-on earlier displayed in the polemical atmosphere of the January meeting (where it was insisted that the fight must be against ALL cuts, emphatically including those implemented by Labour councils) had gone off the boil somewhat.

The NSSN website records RMT president Alex Gordon telling delegates that the £81m of cuts so far “are only year one of the Tory programme” (emphasis added), a narrow formulation that leaves the back door wide open for the McDonnells and Corbyns to scurry in. So long as the focus is allowed to narrow in this way, no amount of general strike calls will of themselves advance the working class a single step forward on the road to social emancipation.

This is particularly obvious when it’s a question of a one-off 24-hour strike – a point not lost on the many who argued that the coordinated strikes planned for 30 June should signal the start of a wave of resistance, not simply prove another opportunity for letting off steam.

But simply multiplying the number of one-day general strikes, or extending their duration, will not of itself help advance the workers’ cause either, in the absence of a political break with reformism. How this break is to be effected is the most immediate problem facing workers.

More Greek lessons

The NSSN conference showed the right instinct in turning to Greece for inspiration, but sadly ended up generating more heat than light with its choice of speaker, one Apostolis Kasimeris.

This speaker, introduced as a trade-union activist representing bus workers in Athens, has been a regular habitué of both Socialist Party platforms and of those of its tiny Greek counterpart, Xekinima. Both are Trotskyite organisations, local representatives of the grandly titled ‘Committee for a Workers International’ (CWI).

Noting that in Athens “there are strikes taking place on a daily basis”, including ten general strikes since 2010, Kasimeris lamented that “these struggles have not been able to achieve victories”, laying the blame for this at the door of union leaderships that remain “under the control of the two political parties which alternate in power in government, PASOK and New Democracy”. The result, he said, was that “These union leaders call strikes but without a clear timescale, and without any clear plan – just to let off steam.”

After giving chapter and verse on how the readiness of bus workers to put up a fight had been sabotaged by their own union leaders, he concluded that “For these trade-union leaders there is only one word: traitors. If my sector had been the only sector which had been sabotaged and betrayed, the damage would not be too great. But this is what they do everywhere.”

All this is true, and well said. But sadly, in the absence of any accompanying material analysis to explain the genesis of this opportunism in the labour movement, in particular the role played by social democracy in facilitating the imperialist corruption of a labour aristocracy, the only antidote Kasimeris could offer to this poison was a vague appeal for more democracy: “Trade-union organisations must pass into the hands of the rank and file. To be democratically controlled by the membership, the struggles must be in the hands of the movement itself.”

Yet without a determined ideological struggle against social democracy, any number of card votes and recalls won’t arm workers with the political weapons they need, won’t transform their unions into fighting organs of the proletariat.

True, Kasimeris tacked on the thought that “At the same time we need to rebuild the political organisations of the working class, because today’s mass left parties have lost the plot. They have shown themselves to be absolutely and entirely inadequate for the tasks of this period.”

It must be assumed that this sweeping across-the-board judgement includes, in addition to the traitors of PASOK and the non-Xekinima brands of Trotskyism, the hugely influential KKE (Communist Party of Greece) and the PAME popular front it leads.

Despite the enormous significance of the political lead that the communist movement has given in this period of renewed class struggle, somehow the panoramic sweep of Kasimeris’s speech managed to airbrush out the communists completely. How much more instructive (and honest) it would have been for Kasimeris to explain in what way the KKE is supposedly “absolutely and entirely inadequate for the tasks of this period”.

Xekinima itself is less coy about its loathing of Greek communists. Back in 2005, when the openly right-wing New Democracy party was in government and pushing for cuts, the Xekinima line was that workers’ resistance was “severely weakened by the splitting tactics of the Communist Party (KKE), which [u]unlike communist parties in most of the rest of Europe still has strong support[/u]. The KKE regularly calls its own union demonstrations and strikes in an attempt to split the GSEE and to create another union federation that it would control. Due to these tactics and policies, [u]the main left parties are not performing well[/u] [ie, the social democrats primarily] in polls, despite workers’ outrage at the cuts of the right-wing government. ” Worse still for this gentry, the KKE’s own electoral fortunes were on the rise! (, emphasis added)

Six years on and with the biggest of the “main left parties”, PASOK, now in charge of the austerity drive against workers’ living standards, has not history amply justified the main thrust of the KKE’s efforts to expose social-democratic opportunism within the union movement?

The communist refusal to doff caps to social democracy in the labour movement has made possible communist-led strikes and demonstrations many times larger and more politically mature than those reluctantly called by the opportunists, whilst the various Trot groupings continue to huddle defensively behind labour-aristocratic leadership and accuse the KKE of being ‘splitters’.

The debilitating effects of social democracy were again on display in the context of the magnificent strikes and demonstrations at the end of June with which workers responded to Papandreou pushing through parliament the next round of austerity measures demanded by the EU and IMF.

It is a long established practice at the time of general strikes in Greece to exempt certain public transport links from stoppage, so that workers can still travel to the centre of Athens to demonstrate outside parliament – with the added bonus of travelling free! When the union leaders of Athens transport workers, under heavy PASOK influence, declared instead a blanket stoppage of all transport, only the most naïve saw this seemingly super-militant posture as anything other than a crude effort to sabotage and hamper the challenge posed to the bourgeois state. So great was the pressure from the rank and file that this announcement of a blanket stoppage was rescinded.

Meanwhile, inside parliament the would-be rebellion of the PASOK ‘left’ melted away, scared into submission by dark mutterings from the Greek vice-president. Speaking from Portugal, he warned that, should parliamentarians fail to rubber stamp the next tranche of austerity measures, there would once again be tanks on the streets.

In other words, if the workers won’t take it from the social-democratic ‘soft cop’, they will only have themselves to blame when the fascist ‘hard cop’ comes along. This admonition sufficed to quell the threatened revolt from a small band of PASOK waverers and cool the ardour of all the unions still hog-tied by social democracy.

It would greatly benefit the NSSN on another occasion to run a workshop on how to uproot the influence of the Labour party from the union movement, for good measure inviting someone from the KKE or PAME to share their own experiences in this ideological struggle.

Of all the lessons to be drawn from Greece, the most crucial one for British workers is the need to engage in open political struggle against social democracy. Hard on the heels of the Greek events came the phenomenal 30 June strikes in Britain, pulling three quarters of a million off the job and many thousands onto the street in defence of public-sector pensions.

Neither of the unions that led these coordinated strikes, the NUT and the PCS, is affiliated to Labour, which goes some way to explaining their having taken the initiative in this manner. This one day of strikes drew a level of support from the working class on a scale that surely shocked the TUC as much as it did the government, putting down a marker which cannot be ignored.

Yet still on rally platforms could be heard Labour apologists bemoaning cuts that are ‘unnecessary’, ‘too fast’, ‘too savage’ or ‘too deep’, refusing to make a plain denunciation of ALL cuts. Even as their party leader Ed Miliband denounced the strikes, the voice of ‘left’ Labour continued to drone on from the strikers’ own platforms. This cannot be tolerated by workers who are in earnest about taking the fight back to capitalism.

And finally …

Can it be that the general secretary of the RMT has taken to reading Proletarian?

Bob Crow declared to delegates at the RMT AGM this year: “In 1947 after the war the country was broke but they found the money because there was a Soviet Union across the water giving concessions to its workers. Now there is no Soviet Union and the papers are running a persecution campaign against workers.” Right on the nail Bob.